Late Thursday afternoon, the Nationals' signing of free-agent outfielder Yoenis Cespedes seemed likely, if not inevitable.

The Nats had made Cespedes a five-year offer for an unspecified amount, according to major-league sources. The Mets were unwilling to go beyond three years, sources said.

The possibility existed -- and still exists -- that other teams are still involved. But Cespedes also could be wrestling with a more fundamental choice.

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According to two sources with knowledge of his thinking, he prefers to stay with the Mets.

The lead agent for Cespedes, CAA's Brodie Van Wagenen, remains in touch with the Mets, and the two sides are scheduled to speak again on Friday, sources said.

Mets manager Terry Collins, speaking Thursday night at the St. John's University Baseball Bullpen Winter Banquet in Queens, N.Y., offered high praise for Cespedes.

"He works very hard to be a good teammate," Collins said. "Even though he doesn't speak a lot of English, he works very, very hard at it.

"His pregame routine is off the charts ... off the charts. He has things that he does right before a game in the batting cage. ... When he walks onto that field, he's legit.

"I've been around a lot of great players. I've seen a lot of great players. This guy, just strictly tools, the five tools -- he's got 'em all."

The Mets, however, have yet to make a formal offer to Cespedes, sources said; they are waiting for Van Wagenen to signal that Cespedes is willing to accept a term of three or fewer years before opening negotiations. The White Sox reportedly are another team willing to go only three years.

Why would Cespedes agree to a lesser commitment when he already is 30 and several teams are wary of signing him long-term in the current market?

Perhaps he would be comfortable with the difference in money if, say, the Nationals offered five years, $80 million, and the Mets proposed say, three years, $65 million.

And perhaps he figures that if an opt-out clause from the Nationals would enable him to become a free agent after say, two years, he might as well just accept the shorter deal from the Mets.

The Nationals never have awarded an opt-out clause, but such provisions rapidly are becoming the industry norm. Free-agent outfielder Justin Upton negotiated a two-year opt-out into his new six-year, $132.75 million deal with the Tigers, and it stands to reason that Van Wagenen would seek the same type of flexibility for Cespedes.

It also stands to reason that Van Wagenen would encourage Cespedes to accept the longer term and higher guarantee from the Nationals -- and that Cespedes might interpret the offer as a greater show of faith.

But ultimately, Cespedes will make the decision.

By all accounts, he enjoyed his brief stay with the Mets, who acquired him from the Tigers July 31 -- Cespedes' third trade in 12 months. Changing teams again might not appeal to him. Joining the Nationals also might concern him, given the number of strong personalities in their clubhouse. The Nats hired Dusty Baker as manager in part to help mold the team into a more cohesive unit.

Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward reportedly rejected superior bids from the Nationals to join the Cubs earlier this offseason. But in the end, Cespedes might act like a more typical free agent and accept the highest offer, be it from the Nationals or another club.

Or maybe not. Maybe he just wants to be a Met.